Au naturel

I’ve decided to stop mowing, clipping, shearing and trimming, and to let it grow. The dandelion crop is impressive for sheer bio-mass on our poor soil.

dandelion harvestInstead of mowing we’re trampling the vegetation where we walk regularly. I thought I was familiar with the garden, but new paths in unexpected places show up every day.

tramp tramp trampPoppies, wode, matronalis, and iberis are popping up all over now that we’ve gone freestyle. Guess I’m retiring the string-trimmer this year!

iberis rampant


tomatoes and carrots


I dug a hole in the lower garden this weekend, and this is what I got.

Load 16 tons, and what do you get. . .

We moved here twenty years ago and started gardening as soon as we could fell some trees, but we have neighbors who have been at it almost twice as long. When I asked R.A.T. (who has beautiful gardens and fruit trees with C., his wife) what kind of soil I could expect to find on my lot he thought for a minute and said, “Sparky”. I had no idea what he meant but later that summer when I boot-heeled a spading fork into a future raised bed and nearly started a forest fire scraping the metal against the granite,  I got it. We don’t have dirt here, we have flint and tinder.

Yeah, good luck getting this one out.

I’ve hauled a lot of seaweed in the last twenty years – pickup truck loads of the stuff, first loose in the back of the truck and later packed into recycled contractor bags as I realized what the salt and sand did to my truck. Also leaves, sand, gravel, horse manure, bales and bales of hay, piles of pine needles, composted bio-soils, wood chips and lately, other people’s yard waste and branches as I’ve adapted to the practices of permaculture. I can actually grow things now but that doesn’t mean there’s any fewer rocks, large or small.

Extra large family size over compensating rock.

Rocks can occasionally be a positive element in the garden, especially in poor soil. I was weeding the strawberries during this last gasp of summer-in-November and found the plants had spread furiously under and around the rocks holding down the landscape fabric meant to suppress weeds. I stood there for a while and considered the situation. The strawberry plants loved those rocks, perhaps because they conserved moisture and regulated temperature changes? The landscape fabric certainly wasn’t doing anything to suppress weeds, and I have a lot of rocks. Why not make the plants happy? The strawberry bed went from this:

Argghhhh, mass strawberry attack.

to this:

Order out of chaos. Sweet, sweet order.

If nothing else, it will be easier to step into the middle of the bed to pick the fruit, and it can’t be any worse at weed suppression than the landscape fabric. Prettier too, and I find that counts for a lot in the garden.

Cumulative gardening

This is a view of the south side of the garden circa 1994. We built the house in ’93 and by June of 94 I had portioned out the land that we cleared to put in a well into garden space. My four-year-old son and I built the little compost bin out of scrap pieces of boarding boards from the house construction, and that’s the same wheelbarrow I used this afternoon, albeit a brighter blue back then. Those are our neighbor’s geese running into the woods that we took down in 2010.

I took this photo earlier today trying to find a like vantage point but not quite getting there because now there’s a cherry tree in the way. I’ve accumulated some plant life over the years but the path is almost in the same place it was twenty years ago. It won’t be there in 2013 – I plan to do that part of the garden over into keyhole beds using Hugelkultur.



Hugelkultur is the practice of building garden beds with rotting wood. How this has escaped me till now I have no idea – I have rotting wood everywhere in my garden, I should own stock.

This is not Hugelkultur, this is a failed burn-pile. I meant to clean it up last fall, but a dry October led to a droughty November and December brought a lot of snow and I never had a free day at the right time. Come to think of it, there might be some debris in there from 2009. . .

Burning brush here is an all-day affair that begins with a trip to the village for a burn permit. Mount Desert Island has a long history of burning down, most notably the Great Fire of ’47. Bar Harbor took the threat seriously and, unlike many small towns who are staffed by volunteers, employs a professional fire department. On a still Saturday morning in early spring or late fall I often meet my neighbors in the dispatchers office. We read off our phone numbers and Fire Lanes to the genial folks in uniform, vow to have shovels and rakes, hoses and at least two adults on hand at all times, and if the air is still and there aren’t too many requests in already we can go off and burn our cornstalks and apple tree prunings.  Its a good system, and they do follow-up too –  it’s not unusual to see a fire truck cruise down our narrow gravel road just at sunset, making sure we’re out for the night.

Once organized and lit, bonfires are all very romantic and tiring. These days I have an Adirondack chair and a book to spend the afternoon watching the flames die down, but when my son was small he and his friends would make a day of experiments, orange-tipped apple branches making smoke signals and water pistols making steam.

That said, I’m not going to miss the big pile of carbon blazing into heat energy and drifting off toward entropy. I’m going to collect every scrap of downed tree and woody stalk and use its slow decay to build soil and grow things. I can’t find specifics on the process, which is fine – I’ll bet that it’s just that simple. I’ve started to pile up the debris in the photo on a marshy peninsula of reeds and willow in the swamp. I’m going to keep a record of how it settles (or doesn’t) over the course of a year and make a stab at “best practices” in 2012.

Thank you, Herr Holzer, for the inspiration. If I had the room, I would totally be saving up for a frontloader.